Growing and processing industrial hemp has become a big business as barriers break down in states with legalized cannabis. Now one Boulder laboratory is starting a study with a university agriculture program to learn more about desirable hemp genetics, much as that program has studied grapes for the wine industry.
The Front Range Biosciences partnership with the University of California, Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology will research hemp genomics in order to build the foundation of Front Range's breeding program, according to CEO Jonathan Vaught. The company will isolate certain strands of hemp DNA and send them to UC Davis professor Dario Cantu and his team of university and Front Range scientists, which will run DNA sequencing and bioinformatic analysis to create a better genome reference for cannabis.
This type of work is common in agricultural commodities such as tomatoes and strawberries, Vaught says. As industrial hemp's legal status continues to fluctuate, Front Range hopes to develop strains that provide higher commercial and medical value for farmers and consumers.
"We're looking for what makes a plant have a certain type of leaf structure, flower structure or seed structure. How well it responds to drought conditions, certain diseases, plants and pathogens," he explains. "The target for a good breeding program is to create cultivars, or lines, that perform specifically in a certain program. Outdoor growing in Colorado might be very different than outdoor growing in Kentucky, and that might be very different than a greenhouse in California."
At least 26 states have passed laws creating industrial hemp research or pilot programs in America, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Although Colorado and California have both legalized recreational cannabis, moving cannabis across state lines would still be illegal under federal law. By isolating the plant's DNA, however, Vaught says no laws will be broken.
"They don't do anything around touching the plant. We extract the DNA, and then we send it out to UC Davis to see what they can do," he says. "That DNA is no different [legally] than yours, mine or your dog's. There's nothing illegal about working with DNA."
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Located close to Sacramento and less than three hours from Sonoma County, the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology is known for its work advancing the wine industry. The school has been in operation since the late 1800s and is currently developing grapes resistant to fan-leaf degeneration, pests and sodium intake; it's also designing and building the world’s first LEED Platinum winery. Cantu – whose work generally focuses on the genomics of plants and fungus, as well as plant diseases, genetics and pathogen and fungicide resistance resistance – is excited to study a new cash crop outside of grapes.
"We have successfully applied cutting-edge DNA sequencing technologies and computational approaches to study challenging genomes of diverse crops and associated microorganisms," he says in an announcement of the partnership. "We are now excited to have the opportunity to study the genome of hemp. Decoding its genome will allow us to gain new insight into the genetic bases of complex pathways of secondary metabolism in plants."
Because of federal laws against cannabis, there haven't been as many studies conducted on hemp genetics and DNA as other crops. By outsourcing this research to UC Davis, Vaught hopes to take advantage of the university's seven-figure research labs and genome-mapping capabilities. In return, Front Range will pledge a one-year gift that covers costs related to supplies, DNA and RNA sequencing, genome annotation and assembly.
Most of the characteristics that Front Range wants to study have been requested by farmers, the company's primary clients; they include disease resistance, seed yield, water intake, CBD production and more. "We have discussions with them all the time," Vaught says. "They're all struggling with various issues. It's no different than any other crop. For them, their margins are going to decline if they can't grow it effectively."